New Ethics Rules: Heal Thyself, State Senate?

State Capitol, Sacramento (David Paul Morris/Getty Images).
State Capitol, Sacramento (David Paul Morris/Getty Images).

Three state senators in exile. Three explosive allegations of political wrongdoing. And now, three new rules that leaders of the state Senate hope will change both behavior around the state Capitol and public perception of that behavior.

“It is time, I believe, that we reserve out full and undivided attention to the people’s business,” said state Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) during floor debate on Monday on the trio of new standing rules for the upper house.

Each of the rules is simply part of the operating structure of the Senate; none apply to the Assembly, and none have to be signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. As such, they are not binding in the same way as a state law. However, they take effect almost immediately, and any effort to rescind them would likely be questioned and criticized.

The new rules ban senators from holding political fundraising in the month leading up to the June 15 budget deadline, establish whistle-blower protections for staffers or others who see wrongdoing and create the position of an independent Senate ombudsman to investigate ethics complaints.

The ombudsman, said Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), is “somebody whose job it is to prevent a problem before it becomes embarrassing to the individual, and most importantly, before it becomes embarrassing to the institution itself.”

The house rules come in the wake of the indictments of two senators — Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) and Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) — earlier this year on separate charges of political corruption. They also come after a large fine by the state’s campaign finance watchdog agency against a prominent lobbyist over political fundraisers hosted at his Sacramento home.

One of the measures cautions senators from talking about pending legislation at parties or events attended by interest group representatives.

“You can do so very easily,” said Steinberg during Monday’s floor debate, “by saying at the beginning of the event, ‘There are certain things that we cannot talk about here at this event.’”

The new rules formally take effect Aug. 1, which means that political fundraisers scheduled over the next few days are not affected. They also, as rules of the house, may be less vulnerable to legal challenges — most notably, the annual one-month fundraising ban and questions about the constitutional links between money and speech.

But even as senators agreed overwhelmingly to the new rules, they rejected a more stringent effort to curb fundraising. A bill to impose a campaign cash blackout in state law, authored by state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), fell short of the needed super-majority vote on Monday — with a handful of Democrats and Republicans declining to vote when the roll was called.

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John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new California Politics and Government Desk.  A veteran of almost two decades of political coverage, he served nine years as the statehouse bureau chief for KQED Public Radio and The California Report, and most recently as political editor for the Sacramento ABC-TV affiliate, News10 (KXTV). John served as moderator of the only 2014 gubernatorial debate, and was recently named by The Washington Post as one of the nation's most influential statehouse reporters.  Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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